Why we need to keep talking about women in tech

commentary The conversation about getting women into the tech industry is far from over, and unfortunately, vicious sexism is still alive and well. Don't get complacent, folks. It's still bad out there.

Update: May 15, 2012 In the wake of this article, Christiane Vejlo's English-language account was posted on Reddit, and Dell has apologized on its Google+ page for hiring Mads Christensen to speak at its Copenhagen summit. "Dell sincerely apologizes for these comments," they wrote, saying also, "[g]oing forward, we will be more careful selecting speakers at Dell events."

Update: 11:31 a.m. PT

A lot of women in tech, including me, don't like to spend a lot of time talking about being a woman in tech. In fact, on a panel of female journalists I was recently on, one of them suggested that we don't need to keep talking about the dearth of women in the tech industry, that it's a problem that will solve itself or is well on the way to being solved.

Unfortunately, as I was recently reminded, that's not true. There's not only a persistent absence of women in the fastest-growing economic sector in the world, there are toxic and dangerous attitudes that make that sector persistently unwelcome for women.

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Last month, Dell held a summit in Copenhagen, Denmark. Michael Dell himself keynoted the event, whose crowd included some 800 Dell employees and partners, and one female journalist: Christiane Vejlo of the Danish gadget blog Elektronista.

Dell's Danish arm hired, as emcee and entertainer for the day, a performer named Mads Christensen, who is a well-known provocateur in Danish media circles. According to Vejlo and a few English-language Danish blogs, he's primarily known for making racist, sexist, and other inflammatory comments in public.

Twitter image: Translation: "There are almost no girls in this room, and I am happy."
Translation of Mads Christensen's comment: "There are almost no girls in this room, and I am happy." Christiane Vejlo

He continued the streak that day. Vejlo live-tweeted the event and Christensen's comments as they unfolded: for example, his opening line, roughly translated as, "There are almost no girls in this room, and I am happy. Why are you here at all?" "Gender quotas are still fairly healthy in your industry," he went on.

On innovation, the emcee who directly followed Michael Dell on-stage commented that "All the great inventions are from men; we can thank women for the rolling pin." And he ended his comments by saying IT was the last bastion for men, and that they should let the mantra "shut up, b--ch" hiss out from between their teeth. All to laughter and applause from that collection of some 800 IT professionals, overwhelmingly male. Dell's Danish director, Nicolai Moresco, reportedly praised Christensen's performance onstage as he thanked the emcee for his comments.

Twitter image: Translation: All the good inventions are from men. We can thank women for the rolling pin.
Translation of Mads Christensen's comment: "All the good inventions are from men. We can thank women for the rolling pin." Christiane Vejlo

Now, happily, the reporting of the incident caused a minor sensation -- although one that was largely confined to Denmark. A few female bloggers picked up the story and Moresco apologized, after a fashion (he's sorry you feel that way). Last I heard, he still has his job, which is frankly unacceptable.

We contacted Dell for comment, and here's what Kelly McGinnis, Dell's vice president of global communications, had to say about the matter:

We can tell you that the moderator's attempted humor does not reflect Dell's values, or its strong record on and commitment to diversity and equal opportunity. Dell has been recognized for its diversity practices, including by Working Mother magazine, which has named Dell four consecutive years to its best 100 companies in the U.S. In addition, Dell's Women Powering Business initiative strives to help women entrepreneurs and technologists expand their networks while offering capabilities to help them use technology to do more.

Christensen, meanwhile, clarified in the Danish press that he thought IT pros should be saying "shut up, b--ch" to their wives, not female co-workers.

First, imagine if something like that had happened in the U.S., at an event where the CEO of a major publicly traded company was the keynote speaker. Everyone involved would be either fired or frantically apologizing, and that should be happening now.

Second, Dell in particular ought to be extra sensitive to the topic, after intense criticism in 2009 for a Netbook marketing campaign that suggested women only want computers for shopping and calorie counting. That was the same year, by the way, that Dell paid almost $10 million to settle a gender discrimination lawsuit from its employees over equal pay.

Couple all of that with the fact that women run just 3.6 percent of Fortune 500 companies, and we think that's a remarkable achievement. Facebook's board of directors, quite famously at this point, includes exactly zero females, despite 58 percent of its users being women, and in spite of COO Sheryl Sandberg being possibly the strongest Silicon Valley advocate for gender equality (and going home to your kids at 5:30 p.m.).

And all of that is in spite of actual research suggesting that Fortune 500 companies benefit richly from having three or more women on their boards, in both financial and product development terms. Yet even women who manage to get into tech, flee the industry in droves, and most of them say the hostile environment is the reason why.

As long as women continue to be underrepresented, they can continue to be abused and mocked in private. Very few men in America would ever stand on a stage and say the kinds of things Christensen said in Denmark, but that doesn't mean they don't say them (or think them) in the board rooms of this country and others. Keep talking about it, everyone -- men and women. This discussion is far from over.

Editors' note, 11:31 a.m. PT: This story was updated with comment from Dell.

 

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